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Letts Lite

Chicago's playwright of the moment kicks back with a little comedy.

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Superior Donuts Steppenwolf Theatre

Toward the end of the first act of Tracy Letts's August: Osage County, Bill Fordham, a middling academic in midlife crisis, comments on Meadowlark, the prize-winning book of poems written by his father-in-law, who turned into a middling academic in his own right. "Christ...I can't imagine the kind of pressure he must've felt after this came out," Bill says. "Probably every word he wrote after this, he had to be thinking, 'What are they going to say about this? Are they going to compare it to Meadowlark?'... You would think, though, at some point, you just say, 'To hell with this,' and you write something anyway and who cares what they say about it."

Good advice: don't worry about writing another masterpiece, just write something. And it looks like Letts took it. Coming down off the exertion of creating a three-hour, O'Neillian knock-down-drag-out like August: Osage County—knowing he'd added a major piece of work to his credits, even if the Pulitzer committee hadn't yet found out at that point—he just started writing something. And Superior Donuts is the result: a serviceable and often touching comedy with assets of its own.

This modest script resembles its epic predecessor—and for that matter, another substantial recent play by Letts, Man From Nebraska—in one way: at its center is a middle-aged man who finds the terms on which he lives his life untenable or, at best, insufficient.

In Man From Nebraska, 57-year-old Ken Carpenter suffers a sudden crisis of faith and decides to explore the world beyond the plains. The flamboyantly troubled women of August: Osage County get all the attention, but it's the absence of patriarch Bev Weston (who in many ways checked out long before he went missing) that throws their anguish into sharp relief. In Superior Donuts we've got Arthur Przybyszewski, an ineffectual former hippie who runs the Uptown donut shop his Polish immigrant parents opened in 1950. Arthur's a decent but passive person who's managed to dodge responsibility most of his life. Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts are making businesses like his obsolete, and Arthur himself is similarly outmoded, with his graying ponytail and nostalgia for the Chicago of his youth—a working-class city full of distinctive neighborhoods.

Arthur claims to be maintaining the shop out of inertia—after all, he quips, the "root of the Polish character is hopelessness." But there's more to it than that. His occasional monologues, detailing his past and studded with references to icons of postwar Chicago (Richard J. Daley, Marshall Field's, the MagiKist lips), reveal his regret at not having done more to preserve the city his parents handed him. Keeping Superior Donuts open is his halfhearted, tardy attempt to at least bear witness to that vanished world.

Into this ruin walks Franco Wicks—an exuberant young black man bursting with promise. He persuades the reluctant Arthur to hire him, then starts offering ideas on how to spruce up both the store and its owner. ("Let me tell you who looks good in ponytails," he tells Arthur. "Girls—and ponies.") He's also got what he considers his ticket to "a life of ease and plenty": a stack of notebooks containing the manuscript of his book—titled America Will Be after a Langston Hughes poem, and destined, he believes, to become the Great American Novel. Franco is, in short, a reassuringly independent spirit amid all the chain stores and luxury condos. His spunk and drive awaken in Arthur something resembling hope.

Stuff happens. Events and conflicts give the principals something to do. Another merchant (not unlike Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard) wants to buy Arthur's business and convert it to an electronics store, Arthur takes a romantic interest in a lady cop, a menacing bookie demands payment from Franco (a cheap plot device borrowed from a hundred movies), and so on. But the play's essential, humble purposes are to chart Arthur and Franco's unlikely but gratifying friendship, and to celebrate the city, both past and present.

Letts couldn't have picked a better neighborhood in which to set this elegy than Uptown, whose complicated history is still visible. With its ethnically diverse population, run-down businesses, decaying palaces like the Uptown Theatre, and gigantic Borders bookstore, it perfectly embodies some of the tensions explored in the play.

Tina Landau's production for Steppenwolf derives a crucial sense of authenticity from set designer Loy Arcenas's realistic evocation of a Chicago storefront business and Ana Kuzmanic's regular-folks costumes. Arthur's played by Michael McKean, the former Laverne & Shirley regular, best known now for his roles in mockumentaries directed by Christopher Guest, including Best in Show and For Your Consideration. He has good timing and conveys Arthur's exhaustion convincingly, but his performance is also pallid at times, failing to command attention.

The real star of the show is young Steppenwolf ensemble member Jon Michael Hill, utterly winning as Franco. Funny, sharp, and brimming with restless energy, his joyful character is a counterpoint and antidote to Letts's sad old men.

As for the playwright himself, he's got nothing to be ashamed of. Superior Donuts may be a minor work, but it's something.v

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